Q: Is stevia really better than artificial sweeteners?
A: Imagine walking out into your garden and picking a sweetener to add to your coffee or tea. A quarter to a half of a leaf is all you would need to sweeten your entire drink if the leaf was from a stevia plant. Stevia rebaudiana, also known as sweetleaf, is being sold in many forms as a natural sweetener — an alternative to refined sugar and artificial sweeteners. Stevia is unique in that it tastes naturally sweet, but has a glycemic index of zero, which means that it does not affect blood sugar and can be used by diabetics and others who wish to avoid blood sugar spikes or calories. Best of all, a small amount of stevia is 100 – 300 times sweeter than cane sugar; a little goes a long way.
Stevia is a plant that enjoys subtropical and tropical temperatures. But this sweet tasting plant can also be easily cultivated in Western North America and South America. This being said, I grew stevia in my yard a couple of years ago in Maryland! It thrived and I enjoyed using it as a sweetener.
Stevia has been used for centuries in three different ways: as a natural sweetener, as an herbal tea and as herbal medicine. As a natural sweetener, it is used in whole leaf, liquid extract and powder form. “Whole leaf” stevia is simply the dried stevia leaf, which has been cut and sifted. Another form of whole leaf stevia is in powder form where the leaf is simply powdered. In this way, stevia can be used in baking and cooking. You can tell if stevia powder is from unprocessed whole leaf stevia if the color of the powder is dull green. If the powder is white like cane sugar, it has been processed. The processed stevia extract powder is what is typically found in the grocery store. These products often contain other added ingredients.
Liquid stevia extract can be found in natural food markets. This extract differs from the whole leaf and processed powdered extract by the extraction process. The active compounds — steviosides and rebaudiosides — are extracted in either a water and alcohol base or a water and glycerin base. A few drops of liquid stevia extract are usually all that is needed to sweeten a beverage.
Medicinally, stevia is often recommended as an alternative to cane sugar and artificial sweeteners because it does not affect blood glucose. Furthermore, whole leaf stevia contains inulin, a soluble fiber that cannot be absorbed by much of the digestive tract and therefore does not raise blood sugar levels. Inulin also aids in the growth of friendly bacteria in the small intestines.
Stevia has also been shown to have possible antimicrobial action, which is why it is now being used in toothpastes and mouthwashes. This may also be why a lowered incidence of colds and flu has been observed in stevia users.
Digestive health support is another benefit of this sweet plant. In China, many drink stevia as an herbal tea to increase digestion, help regulate digestion and as a weight loss aid. Regarding the skin, several tribes like the Gurani Indians located in South America use stevia topically to help with acne, dermatitis, eczema, cuts and wounds. Stevia applied topically seems to help heal cuts and wounds without scarring, leaving a smooth appearance.
So, in conclusion, stevia is in most cases almost certainly better than artificial sweeteners. The more unrefined the product, the better though, so opt for whole leaf stevia or a natural liquid extract (SweetLeaf and NuStevia are good brands to try) over highly processed products like Truvia. Truvia is different from stevia in that it contains the chemical compound rebiana from stevia, erythritol and natural flavors. We don’t know what the natural flavors are and without using the whole stevia plant, you do not get the health benefits of stevia. As for erythritol, although it is a natural sugar alcohol, it is extracted through excessive processing and its side effects include loose stools, bloating and gas.
I have to admit, stevia is not one of the sweeteners I use often, as my heart belongs to honey (which we will discuss next week). However, I am planning to start using it more. Lastly, I’d like to emphasize the fact that only a small amount of stevia is often all that is needed. Using too much often leads to a bitter or astringent taste.
This post is part of our series on natural sweeteners. Click here to read the rest.
Erythritol. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythritol on 6/18/10
“Life with Stevia: How Sweet It Is!” Retrieved from http://healthfree.com/stevlife.html on 6/9/10
Stevia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stevia on 6/9/10
Stevia Rebaudiana. Retrieved from http://www.n8ture.com/herbs-stevia.html on 6/9/10
Lissa’s passion for educating people about the healing powers of herbs led her to obtain a Masters of Science in Herbal Medicine from the Tai Sophia School of the Healing Arts. She has also studied nutrition and women’s health extensively, and has trained as a doula.
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